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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


In the third month of the siege, he fell ill. He had a fever -- no doubt an infectious fever. The country people, the wounded soldiers who had taken refuge in Hippo after the rout of Boniface, must have brought in the germs of disease. It was, moreover, the end of August, the season of epidemics, of damp heats and oppressive evenings, the time of the year most dangerous and trying for sick people.

All at once, Augustin took to his bed. But even there, upon the bed in which he was going to die, he was not left in quiet. People came to ask his prayers for some possessed by devils. The old bishop was touched; he wept and asked God to give him this grace, and the devils went out of those poor crazy men. This cure, as may well be thought, made a great noise in the city. A man brought him another one sick to be healed. Augustin, being most weary, said to the man:

|My son, you see the state I am in. If I had any power over illnesses, I should begin by curing myself.|

But the man had no idea of being put off: he had had a dream. A mysterious voice had said to him, |Go and see Augustin: he will put his hands on the sick person, who will rise up cured.| And, in fact, he did. I think these are the only miracles the saint made in his life. But what matters that, when the continual miracle of his charity and his apostolate is considered?

Soon the bishop's illness grew worse. Eventually, he succeeded in persuading them not to disturb him any more, and that they would let him prepare for death in silence and recollection. During the ten days that he still lingered, nobody entered his cell save the physicians, and the servants who brought him a little food. He availed himself of the quiet to repent of his faults. For he was used to say to his clergy that |even after baptism, Christians -- nay, priests, however holy they might be, ought never go out of life without having made a general confession.| And the better to rouse his contrition, he had desired them to copy out on leaves the Penitential Psalms, and to put these leaves on the wall of his room. He read them continually from his pillow.

Here, then, he is alone with himself and God. A solemn moment for the great old man!

He called up his past life, and what struck him most, and saddened him, was the foundering of all his human hopes. The enemies of the Church, whom he had battled with almost without ceasing for forty years, and had reason to believe conquered -- all these enemies were raising their heads: Donatists, Arians, Barbarians. With the Barbarians' help, the Arians were going to be the masters of Africa. The churches, reformed at the price of such long efforts, would be once more destroyed. And see now! the authority which might have supported them, which he had perhaps too much relied upon -- well, the Empire was sinking too. It was the end of order, of substantial peace, of that minimum of safety which is indispensable for all spiritual effort. From one end to the other of the Western world, Barbarism triumphed.

Sometimes, amid these sad thoughts of the dying man, the clangour of clarions blared out -- there was a call to arms on the ramparts. And these musics came to him in his half-delirious state very mournfully, like the trumpets proclaiming the Judgment Day. Yes, it might well be feared that the Day of Wrath was here! Was it really the end of the world, or only the end of a world?... Truly, there were then enough horrors and calamities to make people think of the morrow with dismay. Many of the signs predicted by Scripture dazed the imagination: desolations, wars, persecutions of the Church, increased with terrific steadiness and cruelty. Yet all the signs foretold were not there. How many times already had humanity been deceived in its fear and its hope! In reality, though all seemed to shew that the end of time was drawing nigh, no one could tell the day nor the hour of the Judgment. Hence, men should watch always, according to the words of Christ.... But if this trial of Barbarian war was to pass like the others, how woeful it was while it endured! How hard for Augustin, above all, who saw nearly the whole of his work thrown down.

One thought at least consoled him, that since his conversion, for forty years and more, he had done all he was able -- he had worked for Christ even beyond his strength. He said to himself that he left behind him the fruit of a huge labour, a whole body of doctrine and apology which would safeguard against error whatever was left of his flock and of the African Church. He himself had founded a Church which might serve as an example, his dear Church of Hippo, that he had done his best to fashion after the divine plan. And he had also founded convents, and a library full of books, which had become still larger recently through the generosity of Count Darius. He had lessoned his clergy who, once the disasters were past, would scatter the good seed of Truth. Books, monasteries, priests, a sure and solid nourishment for the mind, shelters and guides for souls -- there is what he bequeathed to the workers of the future. And with a little joy mingling with his sorrow, he read on the corner of the wall where his bed was, this verse of the Psalm: Exibit homo ad opus suum et operationem suam usque ad vesperum -- |Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.| He, too, had worked until evening.

If the earthly reward seemed to slip from him now, if all was sinking around him, if his episcopal city was beleaguered, if he himself, although still a strong man -- |he had the use of all his limbs,| says Possidius; |a keen ear and perfect sight| -- if he himself was dying too soon, it was doubtless in expiation for the sins of his youth. At this remembrance of his disorders, the tears fell over his face.... And yet, however wild had been his conduct at that time, he could descry in it the sure marks of his vocation. He recalled the despair and tears of his mother, but also his enthusiasm when he read the Hortensius; his disgust for the world and all things when he lost his friend. In the old man he recognized the new. And he said to himself: |Nay! but that was myself. I have not changed. I have only found myself. I have only changed my ways. In my youth, in the strongest time of my mistakes, I had already risen to turn to Thee, my God!|

His worst foolishness had been the desire to understand all things. He had failed in humility of mind. Then God had given him the grace to submit his intelligence to the faith. He had believed, and then he had understood, as well as he could, as much as he could. In the beginning, he acknowledged very plainly that he did not understand. And then faith had thrown open the roads of understanding. He had splendidly employed his reason, within the limits laid down against mortal weakness. Had that not been the proud desire of his youth? To understand! What greater destiny?

To love also. After he had freed himself from carnal passions, he had much employed his heart. He thought of all the charity he had poured out upon his people and the Church, upon all he had loved in God -- upon all he had done, upon all the consequence of his labour, inspired and strengthened by the divine love.... Yes, to love -- all was in that! Let the Barbarians come! Had not Christ said: |Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world|? So long as there shall be two men gathered together for love of Him, the world will not be entirely lost, the Church and civilization will be saved. The religion of Christ is a leaven of action, understanding, sacrifice, and charity. If the world be not at this hour already condemned, if the Day of Judgment be still far off, it is from this religion that shall arise the new influences of the future....

And so Augustin forgot his sufferings and his human disappointments in the thought that, in spite of all, the Church is eternal. The City of God gathered in the wreckage of the earthly city: |The Goth cannot capture what Christ protects| -- Non tollit Gothus quod custodit Christus. And as his sufferings increased, he turned all his thoughts on this unending City, |where we rest, where we see, where we love,| where we find again all the beloved ones who have gone away. All -- he called them all in this supreme moment: Monnica, Adeodatus, and her who had nearly lost herself for him, and all those he had held dear....

On the fifth day of the calends of September, Augustin, the bishop, was very low. They were praying for him in the churches at Hippo, and especially in the Basilica of Peace, where he had preached and worked for others so long. Possidius of Guelma was in the bishop's room, and the priests and monks. They sent up their prayers with those of the dying man. And no doubt they sang for the last time before him one of those liturgical chants which long ago at Milan had touched him even to tears, and now, since the siege, in the panic caused by the Barbarians, they dared not sing any more. Augustin, guarding himself even now against the too poignant sweetness of the melody, attended only to the sense of the words. And he said:

|My soul thirsts after the living God. When shall I appear before His face?|

Or again:

|He Who is Life has come down into this world. He has suffered our death, and He has caused it to die by the fullness of His life.... Life has come down to you -- and will you not ascend towards Him and live?...|

He was passing into Life and into Glory. He was going very quietly, amid the chanting of hymns and the murmur of prayers.... Little by little his eyes were veiled, the lines of his face became rigid. His lips moved no more. Possidius, the faithful disciple, bent over him. Like a patriarch of the Scriptures, Augustin of Thagaste |slept with his fathers.|...

* * * * *

And now, whatever may be the worth of this book, which has been planned and carried out in a spirit of veneration and love for the saint, for the great heart and the great intellect that Augustin was, for this unique type of the Christian, the most perfect and the most admirable perhaps that has ever been seen -- the author can only repeat in all humility what was said fifteen hundred years ago by the Bishop of Guelma, Augustin's first biographer:

|I do desire of the charity of those into whose hands this work shall fall, to join with me in thanksgiving and blessing to Our Lord, Who has inspired me to make known this life to those present and those absent, and has given me the strength to do it. Pray for me and with me, that I may try here below to follow in the steps of this peerless man, whom, by God's goodness, I have had the happiness of living with for such a long time....|


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